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In footnotes or endnotes please cite AIP interviews like this:
Interview of William Havens by Ronald Doel on 1991 July 17,
Niels Bohr Library & Archives, American Institute of Physics,
College Park, MD USA,
For multiple citations, "AIP" is the preferred abbreviation for the location.
Topics include his youth and education; his Ph.D. work at Columbia University; building the Nevis cyclotron; nuclear fission; the United Nations Nuclear Cross-section Committee; his appointment as Secretary to the American Physical Society; recollections of Karl Darrow; Physical Review; Physical Review Letters; various divisions of the American Physical Society; Committee on the Future of Nuclear Physics; his consulting work with Los Alamos in 1962; schism of APS membership over military patronage and Viet Nam War; the changing role of the American Institute of Physics; impressions of William Koch; recollections of Goudsmit retirement as Physical Review editor; his appointment as Professor of Applied Physics and Engineering at Columbia University in 1978; APS involvement in the Star Wars Project; impressions of collaborations in high-energy physics; personal impressions of the role of physics in society. Prominently mentioned names include: Karl Darrow, John Dunning, Maurice Ewing, Enrico Fermi, James Fletcher, William Koch, Willis Lamb, George Pegram, Frank Press, Shirley Quimby, I.I. Rabi, James Rainwater, Emilio Segre, Charles Schwartz, Henry Smyth, Edward Teller, Harold Urey, Hermann Weyl, John Wheeler, Herbert York, Also the American Physical Society, American Institute of Physics, Columbia University, American Association of Physics Teachers.
This is a continuing interview with William Havens. One of the issues we didn’t get to cover in the last interview we did was your role in the United Nations Nuclear Cross-section Committee. How did you become involved in that?
The Neutron Cross-section Committee was formed by the Atomic Energy Commission, I think in 1948, as an Advisory Committee to determine what the research program on neutron physics should be in support of the nuclear energy development program. Neutron cross-sections are very important, or were at that time very important, for the development of nuclear energy. The committee originally was appointed by the Director of the Division of what later turned out to be the Reactor Physics. There were several physicists originally appointed who were experts in reactor physics but knew very little about measuring cross-sections. The measurement of neutron cross-sections was what was required and therefore, after the first few meetings of the committee, the reporting was changed from an Advisory Committee to the Division of Reactor Physics to an Advisory Committee to the Division of Research. Physicists who were expert in measuring cross-sections were appointed to the new committee. Members of the committee were from major national laboratories and from the major research universities who were involved in measuring neutron cross-sections. Originally the committee was the Neutron Cross-sections Advisory Group, which later developed into the Neutron Cross-Sections Committee and then became the Nuclear Cross-Sections Committee. Very much later, in the 1970s, it became the Nuclear Advisory Committee to both the AEC and the NSF.
This was in the 1950s — 1956?
I can trace the origin to 1948. The U.S. had its own Neutron Cross-section Advisory Group as it was called at that time.
This preceded the United Nations?
Yes. The year 1948 is when it started. By 1951 I would say, (that was when the Korean War started), it was well on its way to developing most of the Neutron Cross-Section facilities in this country. Don Hughes was the representative from the Brookhaven National Laboratory. I think Wally Zinn was the first representative from Argonne. He was director of Argonne at the time. He quickly resigned and designated a physicist who was much closer to the measurement program. Al Weinberg from Oak Ridge was a member of the first committee. I was a member. There was also Dick Taschek from Los Alamos; and Joe Fowler who was then at Los Alamos and later went to Oak Ridge. There was no Livermore at the time. There was a representative from the National Bureau of Standards — Bill Koch was the later representative — but I don’t remember who it was before Bill Koch. But there was a representative from NBS at that time. Anyway, we met about every three months at that time to give reports on what cross-sections had been measured and what cross-sections needed to be measured. You had to realize that most of the cross-sections that were necessary for the development of nuclear energy were classified at that time. We always had to meet in a secured area in a particular place in order to discuss classified information. That’s quite different than it is now.
Do you feel there was a particular reason why you were chosen to be a member of the committee?
I was chosen because our group at Columbia University had measured most of the low energy cross-sections for all of the available elements in the periodic table. We were the basic source for all neutron cross-section measurements, in the low energy region, from 1943 until about 1948. Henry H. Barschalt’s group at the University of Wisconsin was represented. It was H. H. Goldsmith who died a long time ago and Bob Adair who put together the first neutron cross-section compilation which was published in the Review of Modern Physics, I think in 1948. This review article was one of Bob Adair’s first major papers when he was a student of H. H. Barschalt at Wisconsin. The article published both the low energy cross-sections which the Columbia group we had done. Barschalt and his group had measured the high energy cross-sections. That was before Brookhaven, Argonne or any of the other National Labs were making any neutron cross section measurements. Columbia and Wisconsin were the two places which measured neutron cross-section. Barschalt had started that work when he was at Los Alamos during the war. Taschek and Barschalt made the measurements at Los Alamos and at Wisconsin. Essentially I was on the Neutron Advisory Committee because Columbia was the principle source of low energy neutron data at the time.
Was Jim Rainwater also on the Committee?
He was never on it. I was the external liaison for our group. He came and testified to the committee and discussed technical matters but he was never a member of the committee.
You say the committee would meet about once every three months?
About once every three months at one of the National Laboratories or in Washington at the headquarters of the AEC. The Committee would discuss the programs throughout the country and set priorities within the AEC about what should be measured.
Were there controversies among the membership, as to which areas needed the most research, or did you find that this was a fairly straightforward matter?
It was fairly obvious as to what had to be measured for the development of reactors. The problem was that there was a gap. You see, at that time you could only measure low energy cross sections with the facilities we had at Columbia with any degree of precision, but the upper limit of the measurements was 100 electron volts. The measurements with the facilities to measure high energy neutron cross sections could go down to about 100 kilovolts. Since almost all of the neutrons that are cascading are between 1 MeV and .025 (1/40th of an electron volt) the way the neutrons get from their production energy in the fission process to where you can utilize them (as moderated neutrons in the reactor) is the thing you wanted to know. There were all sorts of theories. Hans Bethe was one of the major proponents of one of the theories, which turned out to be incorrect but was certainly simple. It wasn’t bad, but it was only by chance that it came out to be reasonable. Hans theory assumed that all the neutron resonances were randomly spaced and that if you could use a random spacing and random distribution of widths then you could calculate something about the average cross section. It turns out that the neutron resonance energies weren’t randomly spaced, but the neutron resonance energies were relatively evenly spaced. The widths were not randomly spaced either (was not discovered until 1956), but were dependent on the one over the square root of the energy. Although the one over the square root of the energy had come out over the original Briet-Wigner formula, which was in 1937, we didn’t realize the relative importance in the gamma ray width and the neutron width and the details of the process itself. There were major efforts to close in this gap between 100 electron volts and 100 kilovolts. The van de Graff people kept going lower and lower in energy and we kept going higher and higher in energy. The theory was used to fill in the gap. Some of it was right, when the theory was correct, but some of it was wrong. It turns out that if you assume a random distribution of both the levels and the widths and you look at the actual spacing distribution which we later determined in the 1960s, and of the Porter-Thomas distribution for the widths, which we also determined in the 1960s.The average cross section calculated wasn’t much different from the random distribution when averaging over the large energy range which existed in a reactor. The random approximation wasn’t correct but it wasn’t bad. It was purely by chance that it turned out that way. There was no good evidence to support the random hypothesis. It’s just that if you say the system is very complicated, then the random spacing assumption isn’t a bad hypothesis.
Bethe’s theory was widely accepted at the time?
Bethe’s theory was used to calculate all the cross-sections used by Los Alamos, for designing the bomb. As I say, we didn’t find out until the late 1950s that those theories were incorrect, but the result didn’t differ very much from the result form the current theory.
This might be a good time to bring up the Shelter Island Conference.
I wasn’t at the Shelter Island Conference. I wasn’t a theoretical physicist.
But there were just a few experimentalists who did go.
Was Barschalt there?
I’d have to check.
Rabi was at the Shelter Island Conference. I first learned about the details from Rabi. He was regarded as an experimentalist by most of the world but in my opinion he was more of a theoretical physicist than he was an experimental physicist. He sure stimulated lots of experiments. He was really brilliant in the way he interpreted the experiments. Another one that received the Nobel Prize for experimental physics was Willis Lamb. He was certainly not an experimental physicist. He was a brilliant theoretical physicist but not very adept in the laboratory. He was not quite as isolated from the real world as George Placzek who lived in an ivory tower, but he certainly wasn’t an experimentalist. Polykarp Kush was a very good experimentalist but Rabi was very seldom (at least in my time from 1939 on) in the laboratory. He was always engaged in the interpretation of the experiment. He was brilliant in his interpretation of experiments.
How much interaction did you have with Rabi in the years after the war?
I had a lot of interaction with Rabi. He was chairman of the department when I was first made an assistant professor and I was in charge of all of the teaching assistants. He had to appoint all the teaching assistants, so I had a lot of contact with Rabi on the administrative side of the physics department at Columbia. On the research side he tried to convince me right after the war that I ought to go into cosmic ray research. Actually I was running the major nuclear physics contract at Columbia at the time. What I did do was to get some people to work on the contract in cosmic ray physics. On the other hand I found very quickly that nature was against doing good cosmic ray work at Columbia University, because the prevailing winds are from west to east. Therefore any balloons you flew from the east coast automatically went out over the ocean. Whereas, if you flew them from Colorado or Minnesota you had half or 2/3s of a Continent to pick them up. Just looking at it from the experimental point of view I didn’t want to go traveling all the time. I thought it was best to have an experimental group at Columbia. I didn’t hold to this modern method where you have to travel all over the world all the time.
Had you considered, for example, using any of the V-2 rockets that had become available?
They didn’t have V-2s for experimental physics at that time.
I’m speaking of the late 1940s.
No, they had V-2s but I hadn’t considered any of that. You had to use balloons or go up a big mountain; there aren’t any big mountains around. Mt. Marcy is the highest mountain in New York State and that’s only 5,500 feet. I must admit Serge Korff was a cosmic ray physicist at NYU and very successful. But Serge was also president of the World Explorer’s Club. He loved to travel: go to South American to the Andes to set up a cosmic ray experiment or go to the Himalayas to set up a cosmic ray experiment. But that wasn’t my bag. I did not go into cosmic rays. Rabi was very disappointed. In fact he tried to discourage me from continuing with the neutron spectroscopy research and to go into something different.
When was this that you decided?
1946-47. Then you see, we got the contract to construct the Nevis cyclotron. The contract was signed on June 28, 1947. Jim Rainwater and I were given two days until June 30 (the end of the fiscal year) to spend as much money as we could because the appropriation period expired June 30. Anything we spent before June 30 came out of the war appropriations to the Navy. The contract money really didn’t start being limited until after July 1: We didn’t go to bed for two nights. We spent two days and two nights with the catalogs and wrote as many orders as we possibly could. We couldn’t go out and buy a yacht or anything like that. I think we did pretty well. We bought Kelvin bridges and RF bridges and RF generators and all sorts of electronic equipment, vacuum pumps. I think we spent about $55,000 in two days. That’s one of the interesting things that you get into in a government contract. Our contract with Columbia University was very general. We would determine what accelerator should be built and build it. Jim Rainwater and I, who were the principle ones who had experience with building and operating accelerators, went around the country looking at accelerators, trying to determine the characteristics of accelerators. Jim spent two months out at Berkeley. I was out there for about four weeks in 1947. It may have been 1948.
What was your experience at Berkeley?
I was at Berkeley in Emilio Segré’s group for about four weeks, where I worked with him and his group. We used the first synchro cyclotron. The 184-inch cyclotron had converted into a synchro cyclotron and we really learned how it worked. I wasn’t only with Segré’s group. He was doing an experiment on it but I was also involved with Brobeck and the engineers who were just learning about how the cyclotron operated. Luis Alvarez was a very good friend of mine at the time. I’ve been friends with Luis since 1941 when he first came through Columbia and I first met him. Carl Helmholz was in charge of the synchrotron. I had to learn about all accelerators, and there was a synchro cyclotron a van de Graaff and a timer accelerator 300 MeV at Berkeley. Luis had an accelerator which later turned out to be the model for Materials Testing Accelerator. It had a Van der Graff machine or injector. Clarence Turner was running the Van der Graff that injected protons into the linear accelerator, and Luis was playing around with the linear accelerator. It used old radar parts, including the power supplies and modulators and everything else. That accelerator was sure a monstrosity. Anyway, I spent four weeks there; I’m sorry my memory isn’t good enough to remember everything. I worked a couple of weeks with Segré and his group because they strongly favored the synchro cyclotron and I was three or four days with synchrotron group and then over with Clarence Turner and Louis’ group for about a week. I found out what the pitfalls of each accelerator were. When somebody is presenting a paper on an accelerator, it looks pretty good, but they don’t tell you all the difficulties they had getting it to work. After I returned we had long discussions at Columbia. The principals in it were John Dunning, who was the leader of the group, and Gene Booth, who had been Dunning’s research assistant. I guess he came to Columbia in 1938 (he certainly was there when I first got there). Jim Rainwater and I, we were the four principles in the cyclotron contract. Everyone in the physics department was in on the discussion: Willis Lamb, Rabi, Henry Foley, Polykarp Kusch, and Norris Glassow (he faded away after the war; he never got back to Columbia but he was there before the war). Jerry Kellogg was in Rabi’s group. All members of the physics department discussed what type of accelerator Columbia should build.
Were there any particular discussions that were memorable?
I remember that those people who had been more closely associated with the Radar lab — like Kush and Lamb and Rabi — were much more in favor of the synchrotron than the synchro cyclotron. None of us really favored the Van der Graff linear accelerator combination. Rainwater and I felt strongly we didn’t know enough because very little information existed. It would be a very difficult combination to get running, and this later turned out to be true. We thought that a synchrotron or a synchro cyclotron were the only options that we had at the time, and at that time there were no proton synchrotrons in existence. The popular thing was the electron synchrotron. Rainwater and I felt that in studying nuclear physics you had to have charged particles because they had much more versatility than electrons for investigating the nuclear process and we strongly favored — now I think Booth and Dunning certainly backed us up to the hilt — that we should build a synchro-cyclotron. The other members of the Columbia Physics Department felt that the electron synchrotron would produce gamma rays: gamma rays were an electromagnetic radiation which we knew a lot more about. We could therefore study nuclear structure a lot better with the gamma radiation than we could with the charged particles.
Was this also Rabi’s point of view? Did he favor this?
I think it was. I can’t swear to that. It was give-and-take throughout. You never knew with Rabi because if you took one side he took the other. I must admit, he really made you defend your particular point and go find out why! Sometimes you had a gut feeling for something which you hadn’t thought logically through; you have the feeling that A is better than B. He made you find out why you thought it was better and made you give good reasons for selecting one over the other. When you say, “Was that Rabi’s point of view?” he knew I favored a cyclotron. I couldn’t tell what he favored, because he would always support another accelerator and would make me defend the choice of a synchro cyclotron. I think he was very excellent at that. We did finally build the synchro cyclotron. In my opinion it was the right thing to do because synchrotrons sort of disappeared. Synchrotrons were not used extensively in nuclear physics until the proton synchrotron at Brookhaven, Cosmotron. The Bevatron was at Berkeley were constructed. Both of those were synchrotrons, but they were one step beyond the synchro cyclotron development. Rainwater and I had put together and operate a 36-inch cyclotron at Columbia and used it for neutron spectroscopy. We felt we had a little bit better feel for a synchro cyclotron than for the other accelerators.
You mentioned that Rabi didn’t want you to continue in the cross-section measurement work as opposed to the cosmic ray group?
He wanted me to start a cosmic ray group. But then when we got the contract for the Nevis cyclotron, we all agreed that one major project was just about all we could handle, so the cosmic ray project died.
That’s what I was curious about.
That was before we had the synchro cyclotron contract. When Rabi first came back from radiation laboratory (I would say it was probably late 1946 or early 1947) he spent a couple of months trying to convince me that I should start a cosmic ray group. I did some study on Cosmic Rays. In fact, it was his stimulation that results in the biggest surprise of my life when I proposed that the Nevis synchro cyclotron be used as a neutron velocity selector because we could produce so many neutrons. I had studied the cosmic rays and knew that it took about 20 MeV to produce a particle from a cosmic ray.
You mentioned this but I didn’t know your background in the cosmic ray work. It’s very interesting.
I studied the cosmic ray because Rabi was trying to convince me to start a cosmic ray group at Columbia, which I didn’t. I had a small cosmic ray group for a short time. Jack Nafe and Marietta Blau were the principles in this group. They flew balloons in Minnesota but — in my opinion — the overhead on the operation was so high compared with the results obtained that I didn’t think it could compete with the other type of researcher. It would take graduate students and professors away from Columbia and I didn’t think that was a good idea for Columbia.
What role did you play once you got the contract — the Nevis cyclotron contract?
Actually I was more concerned with developing experiments to use the Nevis cyclotron. Jim Rainwater was responsible for the RF design. Eugene Booth and Henry Boorse were primarily responsible for the magnet design. I was assigned the task of getting experiments together for the Nevis cyclotron and also given the responsibility of keeping the little cyclotron operating. I had a group working on improving the Pupin cyclotron which disappeared when the Nevis cyclotron was put into operation. I remember I had several graduate students working on one of the critical experiments to be done with the Nevis cyclotron. The experiment that was to measure the neutron-proton scattering cross section at 400 MeV Emilio Segré was measuring the neutron-proton scattering at the 90 MeV and 180 MeV, an experiment which was in progress when I was visiting Berkeley. I remember designing and constructing an elaborate setup of proportional counters with several filters which could be placed at different angles. The whole apparatus was tested and working. However, Scintillation counters were discovered before the Nevis cyclotron was operational. Two years’ work of putting together a large proportional counter array went out the window in about 30 days because the new Scintillation counters were so much superior to the proportional counters and much easier to use. Then we junked the proportional counter system and built a much simpler Scintillation counter system in about a month.
Which group developed the scintillation counters?
A fellow named Kallman from Germany first noticed that moth crystals would give out scintillations when they were bombarded with charged particles. Actually, you’ll remember, that the Rutherford experiments used a spinthariscope, which was a Zinc Sulfide Scintillation screen to detect alpha particles. The scintillation from radioactive particle was well known. It was the development of the photon-electron multiplier that allowed you to use scintillation crystals. There was a fellow at Harvard, actually from Holland, who had noticed that diamond was a good scintillator, but nobody could afford 100 karats of diamonds in a scintillation crystal. It was Kallman, who later became a professor at NYU, who first observed that simple organic materials could be used as scintillating phosphors. Of course, I don’t remember who was the first one to notice that sodium iodide was an excellent detector for gamma rays. Organic crystals were the first scintillators that I knew about. Organic scintillators are composed mostly of hydrogen and carbon and have no heavy elements in them. Because the interaction of gamma rays depends strongly on the Atomic Number of the nucleus, the organic scintillators were not very efficient for detecting gamma rays. I remember that sodium iodide came in as a gamma ray detector. Bob Hofstadter was one of the first to work with sodium iodide crystals when he was at Princeton. He went to Stanford in the early 1950s so it must have been in the late 1940s. Scintillators counters took the physics community by storm. Scintillation counters were much better detector than proportional or Geiger counters that these types of counters became obsolete. For neutron-proton scattering, obviously, if you have an organic scintillator you have the protons right in your scintillator. That was also a great advantage over the proportional counter where you had to have a hydrogen target to produce your protons. In scintillation the source of protons was right in the scintillator. I got into scintillators right away. We had a group at Columbia developing scintillators. We couldn’t compete with the major national laboratories and commercial operations so I had that group for about two years. The group was disbanded because we could buy all of the scintillation crystals that we needed.
And this is now in the early 1950s?
Yes. I remember the night the Nevis cyclotron first became operating; and produced mesons. I think it was in 1951. It was very exciting because I had been working with photographic plates at the time we first detected the mesons. The Nevis cyclotron had produced mesons on an internal target and was detected by examining photographic plates placed next to the target. We knew immediately that it was operating at an energy high enough to produce mesons. We thought the energy was 400 MeV because that’s what it was calculated to be. We later learned when I made more detailed measurements of precisely what the highest energy was that it was 385 MeV, not 400 MeV. The measured energy was less than the calculated energy because the center of the orbit was not at the geometrical center of the cyclotron but slightly displaced.
This was still a large step up from the Pupin cyclotron. Havens: The Pupin cyclotron had a maximum energy of 8 MeV.
You had mentioned earlier that one of the main responsibilities you had on the Nevis was determining the program of research for it.
One part of the program. There were other people also working on other experiments.
I am curious what experiments you had in mind.
I had an elaborate experiment on neutron-proton scattering. Another experiment I set up was to measure the lifetime of the pi meson. I had a group measuring the emission of mesons from targets of different Mass Number. This group consisted of Marten Block and Sidney Passman. Marty Block did his thesis on the excitation of the nucleus with 400 MeV protons and thereby studying the thermodynamic excitation of the nucleus. Warren Goodell, Dick Durbin and Howard Loar were working on the neutron-proton scattering. Marty Block and Sid Passman were working on the excitation of the nucleus. Herbert Browsin was measuring the spectrum of electrons emitted by the disintegration of the mu meson. In order to get the energy of a proton in a photographic plate high energy particle one must measure the multiple scattering of the particle. You determine the multiple scattering by measuring the change in direction of the particle it collides with a nucleus. What you have to have is a straight line, then measure the deviation of the proton path from the straight line. When you are examining distance of one micron deviation from a straight line, you must have a line which is straight to better than one micron. I found that all commercial microscopes did not maintain the accuracy of their traverse to one micron, i.e., they wobble by much more than one micron. All of the comparative microscopes that were used also had a periodic error in them and would not traverse a straight line. The traverse would be a sine curve. Finally, I used the path of a very high energy cosmic ray proton in a photographic, to give the best straight line we could possibly get.
That’s a clever approach.
We compared all of the meson tracts to the path of the cosmic ray proton and in this way determined the multiple scattering of the mesons. I got into a new line of designing precision microscope traverses. I learned precision mechanics by developing a microscope which would have a continuous determinable traverse. A microscope traverse stage is Ok as long as the minute you go one way. However, the minute you go back on the screw, you go one way. However, you engaged a different part of the screw, and then it goes in a different way. You have a different periodicity than previously. I had a lot of fun for a couple of years designing microscope traverse stages I developed which were an order of magnitude better than anything that had previously been developed. In a different line of thinking, when I was building a crystal neutron spectrometer for the Brookhaven Reactor, I found that at large angles the diffraction line from a Germanium crystal did not agree with the calibration. I changed the calibration of angles for the whole country in degrees and minutes of the divided circle. To calibrate the spectrometer, we used a silicon crystal which is the best crystal you could get (even then). Silicon is a better crystal than all other known crystals. The crystal structure of silicon was better known than any other. In fact I think now it’s the standard of the country in the Bureau of Standards, because they know the spacing of the silicon crystal better than any other that exists. We were checking our spectrometer out to about 60 degrees, which when is not unusual in neutron spectroscope, but is very large for gamma ray spectroscopy. The spectrometer divided circle had been calibrated by Pratt-Whitney. When I got out to the order of 60 degrees the diffracted line and the divided circle disagreed by more than one minute. I went to Pratt-Whitney to find out how they had calibrated their original disk. They did it by a sine term — expansion. You have to use a large number of a lot of turns at 60 degrees in order to get the sine to converge. Their calibration at 60 degrees was incorrect. They had cut off the series in calculating their calibration. In order to have the accuracy we required many more terms in the series had to be used. This changed the calibration of all divided center. Actually the error could be traced back to the Bureau of Standards calculation but Pratt-Whitney was the standard of the country in mechanical line. They had to re-calibrate.
That’s interesting. This is the work you were doing early, with graduate students at Brookhaven?
That was the solid state work I did out on the neutron spectroscopy. That was in the middle 1950s. Bryce Rustad was the manager of that group; he died I think in 1963. The group disintegrated after he died.
You didn’t form a second group?
I had a few graduate students that finished up their Ph.D.s in the 1960s but I didn’t get any new equipment for the reactor after Bryce died. The Brookhaven High Flux Reactor was the research reactor of the time and new equipment would have to be designed to use the beam. Therefore the program was allowed to terminate sometime in the sixties.
I think it’s interesting that you felt very comfortable in working on such problems as developing the mechanical traverse.
I enjoyed that.
Did you feel that you were among a large group of people at Columbia who were attuned to that kind of work, or did you feel that you were somewhat alone?
I was not alone. Most of the physicists were attuned to that work — absolutely. They were all intrigued by the high precision microscope traverse because I found all sorts of things about mechanical device which I didn’t know anything about previously. Expert mechanics and people who had done this type of work knew about them but most physicists didn’t know about precision mechanics. The group was very supportive of that kind of effort. If you’re trying to get something, which is an order or magnitude better than has ever been done before, you have to look at everything.
That’s a good point. One of the things you mentioned that you wanted to cover in this session was Edward Teller’s committee work on contamination problems after the Manhattan project. Is this something that just comes to mind now or should we save it for later on?
I don’t think it was the contamination problem that I wanted to discuss. If I said that, I don’t know quite what I meant. Edward Teller had ten times as many ideas as any other physicist, 90% of which were not correct, but this 10% was better than the average of most physicists. He quickly recognized those things which were worthwhile and those things that weren’t. When the Livermore linear accelerator didn’t work as anticipated, and they were looking for things to continue the operation, Edward Teller proposed what was used as a neutron spectrometer. He had prepared a lecture to show that the Livermore linear accelerator would have much higher intensity as a neutron source than the Columbia synchro cyclotron and be the best device in the world, to use as a source for a neutron spectrometer. However, it could not be operated as a neutron spectrometer in the form he proposed because he forgot the overlap problem. If you are going to moderate neutrons, it takes time to moderate them. Therefore you can’t have a high repetition rate because the fast neutrons from a subsequent burst will arrive at the detector the same time or the neutrons from the burst. This flaw essentially killed the Livermore linear accelerator as a neutron velocity selector. That wasn’t a contamination problem. One of the important factors was forgotten.
Were there any other items that you wanted to bring up from the 1940s before we concentrate on your work in the 1950s?
You wanted to lead into the U.N. conference on “Atoms for Peace” in 1855. The Neutron Cross-section Advisory Committee of the US Atom Energy Commission had a lot to do with the US program at the “Atoms for Peace” Conference. We were at that time putting together collections of the neutron cross-sections both classified and unclassified for publication and dissemination throughout the world. The famous BNL — Brookhaven National Laboratory — 325 was the neutron cross section computation. I used to keep one copy in my office and one at home because I used it all the time. The original AECU 2040 later became BNL 325. Part of the compilation was published and part was classified.
I should just mention this is the U.N. “Atoms for Peace” Conference which took place in July and August, 1955. Havens: Eisenhower became president and Rabi was his informal science advisor at that time, before the President had an official science advisor. I’ve heard Rabi say on several occasions that he was the one who suggested to Eisenhower that there be an “Atoms for Peace” Conference. Eisenhower certainly proposed it in a speech to the United Nations in 1953, which is a matter of history. I don’t remember exactly when he made the speech but it’s on the record. The minute he proposed it, it was accepted by the United Nations and then the US AEC set up a whole infrastructure in order to get the conference on “Atoms for Peace” underway. The Neutron Cross-section Advisory Committee was assigned the task of putting together the neutron part of the program. I was on this committee, in fact I was chairman of that committee later and therefore I was essentially responsible for arranging the whole program for the US presentation of low energy neutron cross-sections: and demonstrating what that particular research field could do. The Neutron Cross-sections Advisory Committee was going to have a meeting at the Argonne National Laboratory. Since this came up rather rapidly and we had to decide what to do, I invited all of the member to my home the day before the Neutron Cross-section group met at Argonne. Doel: You mentioned you wanted to talk about it on this session but we haven’t recorded it yet.
I remember Don Hughes and Harry Palevsky come from Brookhaven; George Kolstad came up from the AEC Washington office. I was there, Herb Goldstein who was with what was then called Nuclear Development Associates was present. Jack Harvey also came from Brookhaven and Thomas Snyder came from the General Electric Company. I remember my wife enlisted the help of some of our neighbors to drive us all to Harmon to get Twentieth Century Ltd. to Chicago for the meeting at the Argonne the next morning! Essentially the outline of the U.S. presentation in neutron cross-section spectroscopy was put together at my house on that Sunday before the cross-sections group meeting, which was either late 1953 or early 1954. It took more than a year to put that conference together because so much of it was classified at the time. Eisenhower had proposed that a lot of the information be de-classified for this conference. Therefore we had to have all of the information together long before the conference in order to get it de-classified and published in time for the conference. A fellow by the name of Paul McDaniels, who was Deputy Director of the research division of the AEC, was put in charge of the U.S. research part of the “Atoms for Peace” Conference. There were 20 volumes issued. I was primarily concerned with two of those volumes: one on measurement techniques and one on measurement results. There were volumes on the general theory of reactors, the handling of highly radioactive material, the hydraulics of high pressure water flow. The pumps, valves and pipes for these high pressure systems. There were no 1,000 megawatt reactors at the time, the maximum was about 40-50 megawatts. However, you need to cool a 50 megawatt reactor. The water became radioactive because of neutron capture by nitrogen and oxygen. Thus you have a lot of radioactivity, a very short-lived radioactivity, in that water. You must have special pumps and methods of handling the radioactive water. There was a whole A-Z on both basic physics, engineering and what experience was available for production of electricity from nuclear reactors. All this information was presented at the 1955 “Atoms for Peace” Conference. It took an enormous amount of preparation to put the U.S. program together.
Was in fact all that you had anticipated would be declassified actually released Havens: No! We had recommended that considerably more cross section information be declassified than was released. All of the cross-sections were declassified up to 3 million electron volts. If you look at a BNL 325, which was distributed at the Geneva conference and is probably in the Bohr Library someplace, the cross-section went up to 3 MeV and then stopped. Why did it stop at 3 MeV? The story can be told now: because 1953 was the year of the first test of the hydrogen bomb. The hydrogen bomb — certainly the preliminary test of 1951 — showed that it would work very much better than anyone ever expected. Nobody knew at the time why it worked so well. The Japanese fisherman incident, which occurred when they had the first hydrogen device explosion in the Johnson Islands, put a crater 150-feet deep in the ocean floor. The device wasn’t a bomb; it occupied the entire inside of an airplane hangar.
Because it was so huge?
It was huge, that is correct. Anyway, the reason why the first hydrogen device worked so well was because of the (N,2N) reactions. You see, the lowest energy (N,2N) reaction occurs at slightly more than 3 MeV. The binding energy, of average neutron in the nucleus is about 8 MeV but in special instances, like beryllium, you have a 1.85 MeV neutron binding energy. There aren’t any below 3 MeV so that if the cross section is not published above 3 MeV nobody would have the information on the (N,2N) reactions. We didn’t know at the time very much about the (N,2N) reactions. In fact, Louis Rosen and his whole group at Los Alamos was trying to determine the (N,2N) cross section, using photographic plates in the first DT device where the neutron came from. Finally, they found out that almost everything, when you get high enough, energy neutrons (14 MeV neutrons from DT) will give you secondary neutrons from an (N,2N) reaction. You therefore had a lot more neutrons than anyone expected. There was a lot more explosive energy than anybody expected. Nobody knows what the energy released in the first test was.
As you say the crater and the fallout zone were extremely large. When you think back it to the time of the meeting in your home, were there any significant discussions over different points of view how to structure the conference among any of the participants?
Not in the neutron part of it. The measurers (mainly the physicists who were doing measurements) were all of one mind. We felt that the information that we were obtaining on neutron cross-sections was fundamental physics. In fact, I can tell you a story of what happened in Geneva to illustrate my point. If you make a measurement in Moscow of a physical quantity experiment, you get the same result as you from making the same measurement in Brookhaven or Argonne. Therefore, if you are doing an experiment which is fundamental physics you can’t hide the results. You can’t assume that the Russians are stupid or the Chinese are stupid: If you’re going to develop a physical process, the measurements you have to make are pretty obvious. Some people make them better than others and get better results. Lots of people have gone up blind alleys in the physics world because they made poor measurements. If you make the same measurement in Moscow or Brookhaven, you get the same answer if you do the same thing. We all felt that we ought to get out as much information as we could and save the world time and effort in developing nuclear energy. Now in the other parts of the nuclear energy program, in the detailed designs and engineering, there was a lot of debate about what should be released and what shouldn’t be released. The closer you get to the economics of the process, the more problem there is in how much you should release. I remember Westinghouse refused to release some of their proprietary information on the design of the reactors, because that was company information which they had developed and didn’t feel it was something to release. I’m not referring to classified information. The Westinghouse information was on heat transfer and things like that. They had developed a better way of handling the heat transfer problem using computers. The computers which existed at that time were rudimentary compared today, but it was a step better than anybody else had later and they weren’t going to release the information on how they achieved their results. They wanted an advantage on the design of reactors for commercial applications. The closer you get to the engineering part and the economic part, the more controversy there was about what should and should not be released. The fundamental physics, of reactors is well understood. Most of the neutron emitted in fission have energies between 1 and 2 MeV but some of the neutrons have energies as high as 10 MeV. The number of neutrons above 2 MeV is very small so they can almost be ignored for reactor calculation. However, it’s the neutrons above 2 MeV which are important for bomb design. All important (N,2N) reactions are above 3 MeV. Therefore, for reactor physics, neutron cross sections above 3 MeV are not important. Therefore, neutron cross sections below 3 MeV were declassified for the Geneva Conference but the cross section above 3 MeV remained classified. The arbitrary cutoff at 3 MeV was due to Bill Libby who was on AEC Commission at the time. The cutoff was to keep the (N,2N) reaction information classified.
Did any other countries outside the U.S. have access to the data above 3 MeV that the American scientists had produced?
The U.S. had treaties on classified information with the U.K. and Canada. That’s another story which originated at the Geneva conference. The Tripartite Nuclear Cross-section Committee was formed which consisted of the U.K., Canada and the United States. I was on that committee as long as it existed. We did hold classified and unclassified meetings in the U.S., the U.K. and in Canada. The U.K. and Canadian access to the U.S. classified information. They didn’t have complete access to all classified information. Anything we presented at these classified parts of these TNCC meetings from 1955-1962 or 1963 had to be cleared ahead by the AEC in advance. But certainly as far as I was concerned, the only things that were kept secret were those things that one needed to know for the design of nuclear weapon.
A lot more information was released at the second “Atoms for Peace” Conference in Geneva in 1958. I wasn’t as close to that as I was the one in 1955. I don’t remember all the details about what information was released. I know that all of the information on the U.S. plasma program was released in 1958. I remember Occhialini saying to me at dinner at somebody’s house in Geneva at that time, “You mean to tell me that the whole plasma physics program of the U.S. has been released at this 1958 conference?” I assured him that everything had been released. The U.S. wasn’t keeping back any secrets whatsoever. He said, “I can’t believe it — there’s so little.” Unfortunately, this was true, it was a program which never should have been classified after 1952, but it was classified for political reasons rather than for physical science reasons. Teller, in 1952 at a conference in Denver, pleaded that all experiments on controlled thermonuclear reactions had failed. Nobody knew what went wrong and the only clear way to proceed was to de-classified the whole thermonuclear program hoping that some physicists in the world would come up with what was going wrong. The people there who voted against Teller were Ernest Lawrence and Louis Strauss who argued that program should continue classified. Admiral Straus, who was chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission at the time, I remember having said, “We’ve got to keep something secret,” which I didn’t think was a good reason!
I imagine others didn’t either. It was principally Strauss who kept the security lid on.
I said Admiral Strauss — he was a financier before he became an admiral. I don’t know the full sequence but I know he was always called Admiral Strauss. There was this whole military contingent there that felt everything should be classified. One incident that I remember very distinctly was at the 1955 Geneva conference will illustrate one of the problems. We at Columbia had measured fission cross-section of uranium 235, which is critical to the whole atomic energy program. We presented some of those results at the Geneva conference. I didn’t present them. Vance Sailor from Brookhaven presented the results but he was using Columbia data. During the Geneva Conference I was required to have a State Department representative with me every time I spoke with the Russians.
Only the Russians?
Only the Russians; they didn’t care about other Europeans. I had my State Department representative with me when I was discussing with Vladimersky and Nikitin from Moscow the cross-sections of uranium 235. I had more data that was presented in the paper and they had more paper that was presented in their paper and we were comparing data. The data looked exactly the same. The State Department looked at the two curves, which were very little different. Our data were better than theirs because we had less scattering and had a cleaner system, the Soviets were very interested in our data because it was better than theirs and they recognized it immediately. They were pretty smart fellows, I’ll tell you that. The state department representative said to me afterwards, “The Russian must have stolen that data through spies because otherwise it couldn’t have been the same.” That’s when I said to him, “Look, if you make the same measurements in Moscow as you do in New York you are going to get the same answer.” He couldn’t believe that their data and our data were so much the same because we had both measured the same theory. He thought they must have had spies at Columbia in order to get our data.
Unfortunately that was a very prevalent attitude during the Cold War period.
It was. It’s hard for people these days to realize that we had the secret of the atomic bomb. The greatest secret of the atomic bomb was that it worked and you can’t hide that. Hiroshima demonstrated that. Once you knew it worked, and then there were several alternate routes you can take to develop an atomic bomb. The big secret about the U.S. atomic bomb project was that until July 1945, nobody knew whether or not the bomb would work.
Exactly. You’ve got me curious about the State Department monitoring. What kind of training did the people have who would accompany you?
They were all striped pants boys. They didn’t know any science. They were philosophy, government or political science majors in college.
In your experience — and I realize it wasn’t until later that you became more involved in the policy end of things — were there concerns about the way the State Department was handling interactions between scientific communities? Are there any incidents in your recollections of the 1950s that come to mind?
The State Department had very little technical competence. They were very; very suspicious of the scientists who they thought wanted to give away everything. We had lots of problems on the diplomatic side of the Atomic Energy Program on how you define the information that could be given away and could be unclassified. In fact, some of the scientists in the IAEA at one time asked for our raw data. I said, “It’s not a good idea giving you raw data,” because when you take the data you get a feel for what’s going on. In order to analyze the data you have to do some things that only you know how to do.
The tacit knowledge that comes from being an experimentalist. Havens: It’s very, very difficult to describe exactly why you did something and even more difficult to tell other people how you interpret the data. They insisted that I give the IAEA raw data. It was right at the beginning of using computers to analyze and the data were on magnetic tape at that time, so I gave them the magnetic tape with the cross section data. They analyzed the data in Vienna for two years and couldn’t come up with a better method of interpretation. They finally came back and said, “Don’t send us any raw data.” Doel: That’s interesting. Havens: “We’ll accept your word for it! We can’t figure out this thing.” Well, there’s background subtraction. Sometimes the machine works well and sometimes it introduces background which you look at a whole run and say, “That’s useless” because something was acting up you may not know what it was.
But you know not to trust the data.
You don’t trust the data because it doesn’t look like any other set of data that you had before so something was wrong. To try to track down what went wrong is probably more trouble than doing the whole thing from scratch. The diplomatic boys — we had real problems understanding experimental physics because they did not have any background in experimental physics. Doel: In the 1960s, you mean, or even later? Havens: The 1970s and even up until the present; it’s getting worse. The data analyzers were in such a position that they couldn’t really understand what was happening. What was important was what they analyzed the data on the basis of what they perceived was happening rather than what actually happened. There is a lot of difference between perception and reality. Of course opinion comes into perception and sometimes it’s pretty hard to be objective and we’ve got so many examples of that. For instance, all of us worry about electromagnetic radiation from electric blankets and things like that. That is perception without any scientific foundation.
You’re saying it’s a question of which group is going to have autonomy.
That’s right. We had a great deal of difficulty because they wanted to call the shots and they didn’t know how to call the shots. Nuclear energy was brand new. It hadn’t been taught in any of the courses when they were in college, so they hadn’t any idea of what the realities of the situation were. We didn’t know very much about it either but we knew a lot more than they knew!
One other thing from the mid-1950s: you were a consultant to the Schlumberger Technology Corporation. How that came about?
One of my graduate students — Jay Tittman — was hired by Schlumberger after he received his Ph.D. degree when Schlumberger started their research laboratory in Richfield, Connecticut. It turns out that there are two principal ways you can use nuclear techniques to look for oil. One is with neutrons, and one is with gamma rays. I was one of the experts in neutrons. Gamma rays had been used a long time. Actually I didn’t become a consultant to Schlumberger through Jay Tittman, but obviously he knew me very well. I don’t know who suggested me as a consultant but I got a call from Eric Boissonnas, who was what they called Vice President Technique. He was married to Pierre Schlumberger’s daughter, so fairly well thought of and high up in the company. He asked if I would be a consultant to Schlumberger. I don’t know where they got my name from. Then I went up to visit them and had lunch and dinner and looked over the laboratory. Jay Tittman was there and he knew all about me. I was really doing research on the cutting edge of what they needed for their neutron work in exploring for oil. I signed a consulting contract with them. I forget what it was now but compared to my pay at Columbia it was very, very well paid. I think I gave them two days a month. That went on actually until 1984. About their instruments, I wrote an article with Joe Fowler in Physics Today some time ago. The nuclear business for Schlumberger is now probably at least $350 million a year. It’s been very profitable for them. In fact, it was very interesting because the first thing I did for Schlumberger was elementary physics. They were using Geiger counters with tools to detect gamma rays. The tool which goes into the bore hole can be up to 60 feet long but must be less than 90 feet long. Most tools are 15 or 30 feet long. The tools must be protected from the high pressures in the well. The tools must work as far down as 30,000 feet below the surface, and the temperature and pressure are very high. They were using Geiger tubes to measure their gamma ray activity of the formations as they pulled the tools out. In order to have the Geiger tubes work they had to keep them at a constant temperature, and they had glass thermos bottles around them. I don’t know whether you’ve ever been on an oil rig, I have, but if something gets stuck someone will take a 36-inch wrench and hit the tool. A glass thermos bottle doesn’t stand up very well to treatment of that type. They were spending something like $60,000 per year for thermos bottles. I suggested they make a stainless steel thermos bottle. The response I received was, “Who ever heard of a stainless thermos bottle?” Well, I had. We had used them at Columbia and I had put a couple together. The only thing is, you had to be a little careful in order to have low conductivity you had to have a very thin layer of stainless steel where it is connected to the outside in order to get very little conductivity. The neck of the stainless steel thermos bottle was 0.015 inches thick. The high chrome nickel stainless steel is the strongest material you can possibly get. Fifteen mls of that, if it’s formulated right, will take a hell of a lot of abuse. I had to a stainless steel thermos bottle made for them and I put ice in it with water. They couldn’t believe that it would work. I had to do an experiment in a glass thermos bottle with ice and water and in this stainless steel thermos bottle with ice and water and a recording thermometer in each. I ran the experiment for a couple of days to show that the temperature rise in the stainless steel thermos bottle was less than in the glass thermos bottle.
It took that to convince them?
It took that. They wouldn’t believe me. Of course, all of their thermos bottles now are stainless steel. They do break if you treat them too roughly but they save $60,000 a year on thermos bottles. That spread my reputation in the company. Never mind the neutrons and gamma rays! I was well thought of at Schlumberger and we worked out a lot of different techniques. The techniques are not classified. The biggest spoofer in looking for oil is salt water. There’s a lot of salt water in the ground. Pockets of water in the earth’s crust are usually salty. It’s only in very special cases that the water is not salty. Artisan wells are fresh water and so forth but most of it is salt water. Salt water has chlorine in it. Chlorine is a strong neutron absorber. Characteristic gamma rays are emitted when chlorine captures a neutron. If you put neutrons in the bore hole, the easiest thing to look for is the gamma ray from the absorption of neutrons. Salt water will absorb them. Oil has hydrogen and carbon, which aren’t strong neutron absorber. All you have to do is look at the flux of neutrons coming back from the formation. If it’s very low you haven’t got oil — you’ve got salt water. In principle, the way the technique operates is to tell the difference between salt water and oil. It’s also necessary to know the density of the formation because you can’t get oil out of solid granite. For average density as low as the neutron absorption the pocket has oil, fresh water or nothing. The neutron is a probe of the nuclear density, however since all of your weight is in the nucleus. You can tell immediately what the average density of the material is from the reflected flux. The nuclear density of the material, is the most important from the reflected neutrons. By just measuring neutron flux you have a problem finding out what is absorption and what is reflection. That’s a little bit more difficult but you can do that also. We can also look at gamma rays. That’s where the expertise is required: you also have problem about data transmission which provide neutron time of flight data. I was rather experienced in this, from the neutron velocity selector work. Now Schlumberger has a computer running down in the hole and a lot of data analysis is done below ground and send up using processed signals. Computers were not available in 1955. The limitation on data taken was the transmission of data on a cable of 30,000 feet. We couldn’t use the very fast techniques because of the data transmission problem. We had to develop methods to use the fast techniques down below. That’s the way I got into my work with Schlumberger. I think I was very valuable over the years because I was closely connected with all the developments throughout the country in neutron physics. As I got older and less connected I was less valuable to them but then I got into the policy sphere, setting salaries and recruiting people and so forth. I continued until the 1980s. When I became full-time operating officer at APS I had to give up that consultantship.
When you first started with Schlumberger, was it your impression that they were one of the few companies that were utilizing those techniques for exploration geophysics? Or were they developing fairly widely?
I don’t know. There are very few companies in the wire-line exploration business. There was some tense competition; it’s very profitable. Schlumberger was ahead because they were the biggest and had the most money to put into it.
So their work was limited to developing the instrumentation that geophysicists were using for the oil exploration?
There method was rather crude — let us put our tool in your hole. They sold the services. They owned the tools. Now one of their trucks has a powerful computer on it. The total cost of the truck and equipment is between $250,000 and $500,000. It’s not something you enter into lightly. Schlumberger has service all over the world. Doel: We are leading up to your time as Karl Darrow’s deputy secretary in the American Physical Society (APS).
I was closely associated with the APS in the early days of my career because I was in charge of all the teaching assistants at Columbia. Therefore, I had to be chairman of the local committee for the APS and AAPT (American Association of Physics Teachers) meetings which were regularly held in January at Columbia. All of the teaching assistants were needed to run the slide projectors during the meeting; it was all volunteer help. I put the arm on the assistants, of course. It wasn’t quite volunteer on their part! But it was the thing to do since all physics departments supported the American Physical Society. I was one of the experts in nuclear physics at Columbia and Darrow needed help in sorting the papers in nuclear physics. There were a larger number of nuclear physics papers at that particular time. I arranged most of the nuclear physics sessions for the APS meetings.
This was in the late 1940s?
Right. I helped Darrow to put the program together for the APS meeting. It was interesting work and I learned a lot of physics. I kept up with various specialties in physics while sorting papers and putting the Bulletin together. I had to learn how the Bulletin was produced and what the deadlines were, I would also get my colleagues at Columbia to sort the papers in fields of physics where I was not an expert. I would get Quimby to sort the solid state papers and Polly Karp Kusch or Willis Lamb to sort the electron and atomic papers. Essentially the program for the physical society meetings was put together by the physics department at Columbia University.
How well did you know Darrow in the 1940s?
Very well. He would invite my wife and me to dinner about once a month; we usually ate at a good restaurant downtown. I saw him regularly. I got better acquainted with the APS and the American Institute of Physics because the Institute used to send Madeline Mitchell to Columbia to help with APS meetings before she was Madeline Tate. Madeline was the publications manager of the institute at that time, and was responsible for producing and distributing the APS Bulletin. The institute was publishing the Bulletin, as it still does. I become acquainted with all these people and was then involved in the publication of the bulletin. Then I not only did arrange the program for the meeting at Columbia, but I started to supply the physics expertise (not my own but the other people) to the other meetings of the APS which were handled by Darrow.
How much time did that take you in reviewing the articles for consideration in the journal?
I was principally concerned with the annual meeting because I had to set up the whole program for the annual meeting, at Columbia. It didn’t take very much time. The Annual meeting was between semesters. As far as the meetings were concerned, I had to do a little administrative work to get all the rooms assembled before the program was put together. The deadline was usually in October or something like that. We arranged for the rooms at the beginning of the fall semester. It probably took a week of work spread out over four months before the meeting, and then I had to work very hard during the meeting. I had to make sure everything went right: was the assistant there? The slide projector? And all of the mechanics. On the other hand, it would take me half a day for the other meetings. It was a task that had to be done and it had to be done by people who knew the specialties in physics. Remember there were regional secretaries who managed the meetings in the region of the country. The west coast secretary was Raymond Birge, chairman of the physics department at Berkeley. I remember the big discussion about whether or not we should have a Midwest secretary. Darrow was devastated by the fact that a Midwest secretary was appointed because he felt that showed lack of confidence in him. I remember having a long discussion with him about the Midwest secretary. I told him he was a New Yorker, even though he had come from Chicago. He was perceived as a New Yorker, anybody sitting in New York couldn’t supply a representation from the Midwest. It had nothing to do with his personal qualifications but had to do with the geography and the situation at the time.
Was this something that came up in the 1950s?
The first Pacific Coast Secretary was P. Lewis who was appointed in 1917. Leonard Loew of Berkeley was secretary from 1928 to 1935. Birge was secretary from 1942 to 1947. The first Central State secretary was Robert Sachs who was appointed in 1964. I remember when Bill Nierenberg went to the west coast he became regional secretary for the west coast from 1954 to 1964. Then we did appoint a secretary for the Midwest and that was Bob Sacks, who was then an Associate Director of Argonne. Bob was regional secretary for the Midwest for several years and very active. Then we had a regional secretary from the southwest, starting with Jan Phillips and ending with Henry Matz. The secretary from the Southeast was Worth Seagondollar; Ward Whaley became West Coast secretary in 1964. The regional secretaries ran the meetings and assembled the Bulletin for a meeting in that part of the country. It wasn’t centralized at the time. Anyway, the letter that Darrow wrote to me asking me to be deputy secretary said, “We would like you to become deputy secretary of the APS. Before you say no, there is absolutely no work involved. Pegram is not able, and is the only one who knows anything about the finances of the APS. We have to get somebody in to understudy him and the council feels it would be an insult to Pegram to appoint a Deputy Treasurer, Therefore, would you become Deputy Secretary?”
This was when Dean Pegram’s health was beginning to fail?
Yes. I forget which year it was but he had three heart attacks in one year. His pulse rate was 42. I was very friendly with the University physician and we used to sit down together and talk about what could be done with Pegram because he wanted to be continually active but was incapable of being active. Your pulse rate is the clock which times your activity. Yours sitting there is probably around 70. His was 42, which meant everything was in slow motion. He was failing badly. Someone had to come in to take over. Quimby was appointed Deputy Treasurer at the same time I was appointed Deputy Secretary. The most difficult night I ever had at Columbia in my life was when Pegram was removed from being an active Vice President of Columbia University and in the future would be a Special Advisor to the President. He called me up about 4:00 in the afternoon and said, “I’d like to come over and talk to you.” We were very friendly. I called my wife and said I didn’t know when I would be home. He came over and sat in a big arm chair in my office and said, “I’ve devoted my life to Columbia University since 1895 and now they want to get rid of me.” Listening to him was extremely hard. I recognized that as Kusch said at one time, Pegram never would have tolerated a man of his incompetence in his prime years. But he was incompetent. We would be negotiating the overhead rate on government contract and he would go to sleep in the middle of the negotiation. He was incompetent. Kirk finally had to tell Pegram that he couldn’t have any line authority in the University, and that’s when he came over to my office and spoke about it. When Pegram received the computer from the AIP he was elated. I escorted him when Prince Philip of England bestowed the medal on him. He took me out to dinner afterwards and it took us three hours to eat dinner. I can stretch out an hour eating but after that it becomes rather difficult. However Pegram was living at the rate that was 2/3s the rate that the average person lived. He was a wonderful man and a very great physicist. He wasn’t given enough credit for the things he was responsible for in physics.
What sort of things do you have in mind when you say that?
It was he who recognized almost immediately the potential of uranium. In fact, in one of the pictures of me which I gave to the History Center, there is an image of a submarine on the cyclotron. Pegram said, “We’re going to run submarines by nuclear energy.” That was in 1941. He was responsible for the Underwater Laboratory in New London which developed devices to detect mines. As far as understanding classical physics, electro-magnetism and mechanics; he certainly understood that better than anyone else at Columbia. Rabi felt Pegram knew classical physics much better than he did, I think he did. There’s no doubt about it. Pegram wasn’t as familiar with the quantum mechanics and quantum radiation as younger physicists. After all, he was 80 years old in 1955. He was born in 1875. Quantum mechanics came along in 1925 when he was 50. That’s not surprising. Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s Science Adviser, never believed in quantum mechanics. He never believed in quantum mechanics. His big accomplishment was that he analytically worked out how a plane could get out of a tailspin. He took a plane up and put it into a tailspin and took it out. That’s what you call putting your life on the line in your hands!
Every time a plane went into a tailspin before that, the pilots would die; they couldn’t get out of a tailspin. He figured out a way that the plane could get out of a tailspin and did it. He was quite a man.
Did you know him personally?
Yes, I met him personally. I went to a conference in Oxford in 1950 where he was one of the principle hosts. I learned a lot from him. I didn’t stay with him but I was very close to him for about two weeks there. He invited me out to Buckland House where Queen Mary had stayed during the war. We walked around the grounds and he showed me where the private racetrack had been. I was over at Oxford a little later. He had a supper where I was one of the principle guests and I learned the protocol. You know, you are invited to Sherry with the master of the college. If you are invited at 5:30 you were up here, high in the hierarchy — if you were invited at 5:45 — until 7:00 when you went into dinner. If you were the Deputy Master of the College you had to have Sherry for an hour and fifteen minutes; if you were an instructor you had to have Sherry for fifteen minutes!
I suspect that we ought to bring this now to a close. We will continue with your career in the APS in the next round of interview. Thank you very much.